The recent spate of custodial deaths has renewed calls for an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission.LIKE many, Tan Sri Simon Sipaun is baffled by the three deaths in police custody in a matter of just 11 days.
“If it's someone old and frail like me then it's possible, but these three men who died are in their 30s and 40s. They are much younger than even my youngest son.“It is unlikely that young people, after a few days in police custody, die of a heart attack or other natural causes,” says the former Suhakam vice-chairman who finds the situation alarming.
He doesn't think the police will ever readily admit it's their fault when men die in their custody, and given the circumstances, he says, the public are not going to believe what the police say either.On May 21, 32-year-old N. Dhamendran held for suspected involvement in a fight died in detention at the KL police headquarters lockup; on May 27, 40-year-old Jamesh Ramesh detained for drugs was found dead in his Penang police headquarters' cell; and on June 1, Karuna Nithi, 42, charged with assaulting his wife over a domestic matter died in detention at the Tampin police station.
The police initially said Dhamendran had died from a heart attack. It was only after pressure from his family, NGOs and the public, that shocking details of his death finally emerged. His ears had been stapled, he had puncture wounds on his ankles and other injury marks on his body.The four policemen allegedly responsible were identified, put on desk duty first, then suspended, before largely due to public outrage three were finally charged for murder. The fourth cop, an inspector, has gone into hiding.
“If you report about the police to the police, how do you expect them to act? You can't trust the police to investigate one of their own because the tendency is to protect their own,” says Sipaun, who like many others have been making renewed calls for the Government to set up the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC).“It's not fair for the Government to delay IPCMC anymore by finding all sorts of excuses or for them to have an internal disciplinary committee within the police. The police can't investigate themselves,” he says.
When Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was Prime Minister, a top-notch 16-member Royal Commission was appointed to look into enhancing the operations and management of the police and turn it into a respected and formidable enforcement body; IPCMC was one of the key recommendations in the 576-page report that was released in 2005.But when the Government tried to set up the IPCMC, there was stiff resistance from the police who said it was unfair to single them out.
Two years ago, the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC) was set up instead, to look into complaints involving 19 enforcement agencies, one of which is the police.But people like Sipaun have been less than impressed with the EAIC.
“The EAIC has proven to be ineffective. Its scope is too general. Although millions have been spent on it, it has taken disciplinary action on only one case,” he says.Last month, former Chief Justice Tun Abdul Hamid Mohamad had questioned the capability of EAIC. He noted that of the 347 complaints received, only 60 were referred for full investigation, and of this, only three were fully investigated. He said since EAIC was set up two years ago, only one disciplinary action and two warnings have been handed down, making the RM14mil spent on it over the period “very costly indeed.”
Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria was one of the 16 who sat in the Royal Police Commission that came up with the report and the IPCMC proposal. He feels the report is as relevant today as it was back in 2005 because “all the same issues have resurfaced”.Sipaun: ‘You can’t trust the police to investigate one of their own because the tendency is to protect their own’ Sipaun: ‘You can’t trust the police to investigate one of their own because the tendency is to protect their own’
“You don't need another panel. You can re-study the report and implement it because it is the same issues.”There had been 80 deaths in custody from 2000 to 2004 when the commission started its work and inquests were conducted only for six.
“Our report states there must be an inquest conducted for every death in custody, whether it is from natural causes, an accident or other reasons. There must be an independent process that is judicial,” he says.Despite the report, the number of custodial deaths has continued to go up.
Last September, then Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein told Parliament there were 209 deaths in police custody from 2000 till Sept 2012. Suaram's co-ordinator R. Thevarajan, who has been keeping tabs on custodial deaths since then, says that number has now risen to 221.“These are cases we know of but the number might be higher because some go unreported,” he says.
Being a member of the commission, Dr Denison is naturally in favour of the IPCMC. He thinks the police shouldn't be so defensive because it protects policemen as well.
“Death in custody has to be treated in a serious way. The measures given by the commission must not be seen as undermining the police but they actually protect the interest of the police because there is an independent person to verify a death.“For example, if I lock you up and you die and I am accused of killing you when you might have died from natural causes or committed suicide, this independent body can vindicate and clear me,” he says.
For him, a police station should be the safest place in the country for anybody to be in - even for a criminal. And policemen being “the men of the law” should be seen as defenders of human rights not violators.“Someone might be the worst criminal in town who has beaten up over 100 people but that doesn't justify the man-in-uniform (policeman) hammering him up to get a confession. That is such an ancient style of doing things,” he opines.
For Dr Denison, when the police detain someone in the lockup, they have to be doubly sure that they want to take that risk.“If you can't make sure a suspect is safe in the lock up, then don't lock him up. The onus is on you. He might be safer outside and you can call (him) in for questioning instead of detaining him,” he says.
He thinks it is important that Malaysia ratifies the UN Convention Against Torture because this will show that the country (and its police) are not willing to engage in torture to extract information. This will also bring the police's methods and standards of investigation in line with the mininum global standards.Dr Denison: ‘Someone might be the worst criminal in town but that doesn’t justify hammering him up to get a confession’ Dr Denison: ‘Someone might be the worst criminal in town but that doesn’t justify hammering him up to get a confession’
He points out too that accusations of police brutality and excessive use of force is a global phenomenon, not just in Malaysia.It is just a matter of being held accountable, he adds.
“Everytime the police shoots somebody, there will be an enquiry to find out if it's justifable to shoot.”While much of the discussion since the deaths in custody have centred around the need for the IPCMC, Dr Denison says this is not enough: it is essential to improve the police's skills on gathering intelligence, conducting investigations, and effective interrogation techniques, including asking the right questions, detecting inconsistencies and “trapping” suspects based on their own arguments and inconsistencies.
He thinks it is unfortunate that less than 25% of the police force are involved in actual investigative policing as there is a greater need to step up policing as well as increase the numbers.He points out that standard operation procedure (SOP) too is central for the police, “Is there excessive questioning? What was the SOP when you arrested him? When did you question him and did you need to keep him in the cell?”
He hopes this holistic approach would help bring about a world-class police force.MIC strategic director Vell Paari says the word (police) “force” is due for change.
“Why use the word force'? During the early days when the police were fighting Communists, they had to use force' because it was appropriate then. But now the country, the people, society have changed. The police are offering a service, so why not change the terminology to police service' instead of force to reflect that change?” he argues.On Friday, Vell Paari and a group of NGOs met with Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Paul Low to discuss the death-in-custody issue.
With the recent spate of deaths in custody, he believes people are afraid to go to the police to lodge a report because they might get detained and end up as another death-in-custody victim.He lauds the government's proposal for a permanent coroner's court to look into deaths in custody cases as “fantastic”.
“But we made it clear that the EAIC, in its present form, can't be accepted because it is a watered-down version of the IPCMC. We stood firm on the need for the IPCMC. If the government wants to keep the EAIC, it should incorporate all the powers of the IPCMC into it,” he says.(The IPCMC has the power to prosecute, while the EAIC can only refer a case back to the Attorney-General for prosecution).
Still appalled at how Dhamendran's ears had been stapled in police detention, he asks:“Where are they teaching the police this kind of interrogation methods?
“Whether a person is a criminal or not is up to the courts to decide.“And why is it that only after there is so much drama' and outcry that action is taken and the truth comes out,' he asks.
Vell Paari thinks action should also be taken against the police officers who gave out the false information that the deaths were due to natural causes and had nothing to do with the police.“People are losing confidence in the police force. The country is evolving and people's demands and understanding are different now but the police are still using the old methods,” he notes.
Some think the police are having a hard time and all the criticism is demoralising them but Vell Paari disagrees.“If the police is demoralised, you can do something and motivate them. But if a life is gone, it's gone. You can never get it back,” he says.